The Trail to Everest: Before and After the Earthquake

I am Kenn, from Calgary, Canada and I have a unique perspective on the Everest Base Camp Trek, having done the world famous hike twice in 2015, once just before and once after the earthquake(s) in the spring.
My whole life I’ve wanted to stand on the Khumbu Glacier and look up the Khumbu Icefall at Mount Everest. In April, I was part of the Everest Base Camp (EBC) trek led by Ian Taylor. I chose Ian’s trek because it offered the most acclimation days on a journey that can take you to well over 5,500 metres on Kala Pathar.
Kenn Charlton with the Canadian flag at Everest base camp
From the moment I exited the airport, Ian’s staff were there for transfers, tours and hotel check-ins. The first few hours in Kathmandu are somewhat a shock for people from western countries; however, after a while of wandering the bustling streets of the trekkers district of Thamel, you realize how wonderfully exotic and safe the city actually is.
In April ours was a fairly large group of over twenty trekkers from several different countries.  The group members quickly gelled over the first couple of days. We also had 5 yaks to transport our kit bags along the way.
Everyone had the goal of reaching Everest Base Camp. For many, it’s been a life long goal, and for all, the journey started months in advance with training hikes and various workout routines. Everyone was keenly aware that the trek eventually reaches some of the highest elevations in the world that can be achieved by the common hiker. The term ‘Nepali Flat’ is quickly instilled in us. The trail is rarely flat; you trek up a hill, you go down a hill, sometimes it may be just 30 meters, sometimes it may be several hundred metres. In fact, because you’re going up and down like a Yo-yo, the trek from start to finish has a total vertical rise of about 8,200m from Lukla, to EBC, to the time you get back to Lukla.
Along the trek people have their individual strengths and weaknesses. Someone’s strength may be going up hills, while that may be someone’s else’s weakness. Ian’s years of experience as a group leader of high elevation trekkers means that each individual’s capabilities and expectations were taken into account. Although a physically demanding trek, the pace was always such that we were not struggling or gasping for breath in the heights of the Himalaya.
Yaks on the Everest base camp trail
The two day trek from Lukla to Namche starts with a meandering trail through many small villages along the Dhudh Kosi River, with several suspension bridges to be crossed. Once the trail crosses into the Sagarmatha National Park, it is very rugged and a steep long trek to Namche Bazaar at 3440m. Ian’s itineraries have a three night stay in Namche with two days of acclimation hikes high above the village, which allows your body to gradually compensate for less oxygen available. This is important because each day, each new lodge is higher and higher in elevation. Bridge crossing on the Everest base camp trek
On the day that the group leaves Namche a brief uphill section takes you to a fairly flat section of trail for about four km, then much of the elevation gained hiking up to Namche is lost, simply to cross the river and then to climb to a elevation of 3,900m at Tengbouche. I think most would consider this the longest and perhaps toughest hill climb on the EBC Trek.
The following day will took us to Dingbouche – and a dramatic change to the trek. Spectacular views of the peak of Everest are lost as the Nuptse ridge line dominates the view north and Ama Dablam seemingly transforms from a picturesque beauty to a rugged glacial wonder. All this is seen as the trail climbs above tree line.  Dingbouche is a two night stay for acclimation. A climb high above the village for the simple purpose of acclimation is the excuse for a view that will take your breath away. With nearly vertical mountains surrounding the group, most in the rare 20000 foot club, it’s really an honour to acclimate at over 5000 m for a couple hours.
The view above Dingbouche
The hike the following day from Dingbouche to Lobuche is a stunning walk that will see the group climb the Khumbu Glaciers terminal moraine to the famed and haunting Stone Memorials dedicated to many of the climbers who have lost their lives while climbing Mount Everest. The final section to Lobuche is when your goal of reaching EBC is almost in site, with views of Pumori and Khumbutse dominating the north.
After a very chilly night at nearly 5000 metres at Lobuche, our group awakened to nearly 30 centimetres of freshly fallen snow on the ground. This, obviously, is not good. The high elevation trails of Nepal must be respected as the weather and natural surroundings can be very unforgiving. On this day, Ian and his team are in contact with expedition teams and weather forecasters at EBC; the long term predictions are for snow for the next four consecutive days.  It is at this time that Ian makes the decision that it is too dangerous to continue to Gorek Shep and EBC. With a poor long term forecast, full lodges, domestic and international travel arrangements by all members of our group, we will have to retreat to the lower village and better weather of Periche and head back towards Lukla. The group is in 100% agreement that this is the right decision: safety is the number one priority. For most, it will still be the trip of a life time. This was the first time any of Ian’s EBC treks were not able to make it to EBC. Our group became known among ourselves as the ‘Almost EBCers’!
After arriving back in Kathmandu, I had a few days pre-planned for a side trip to the resort city of Pokhara. Ian’s assistant Dawa arranged flights, transfer and a hotel for me and all went off without a hitch. I was able to Para-glide and zip line in Pokhara. Upon return to Kathmandu, I left the next day for Hong Kong – just two days after the April 25th earthquake struck Nepal! Everyone has seen the news reports of swaying buildings and collapsing temples in Kathmandu. This was incredibly worrying, knowing about the thousands that lost their lives in a battered country with a third world economy and infrastructure.
Heavy load carrying on the Everest trail
Early after returning home, I made commitment to myself that I would return to Nepal. I waited well into the summer season to chose a return date. With the earthquake and aftershocks still happening, and the monsoon season approaching, there was a lot of uncertainty regarding the EBC trail’s status.
An important thing to remember about the trial that leads from Lukla to Namche, Tengbouche and all the way to Gorek Shep, is that it is literally a highway for goods and supplies to reach the people of the Khumbu. Not only do their professions and income depend on the trails being passable, but their lives do as well, as this is the only route for supplies to move from village to village. Through May to July, it became apparent from various posts and blogs that, although the trail had received some damage, it was fixed, passable, and  well on its way to full remediation by the fall trekking season in October.
With news of a good Everest Base Camp trail I made contact with Ian once again and decided that the October departure (one that actually spent the night at EBC) was for me. After all, I’m a Canadian – a little cold camping on a glacier was not a worry.
So, in early October, I landed in Kathmandu with a curiosity of what I would see in the city that, just a few short months before, was the centre of the world’s newscasts due to the April and May earthquakes. The sites where buildings had collapsed had been cleared, and no roads were blocked. Much of the fallen materials were being recycled. In Nepal, virtually everything will be reused in some way. In the streets of Thamel, the only thing missing were the tourists; business was down by up to 80%, all because of the negative images of the earthquakes. The shops were full of merchandise, and the restaurants waiting for diners.
The wonderful Kathmandu
There would only be two of us on this particular EBC trek (aside from our Sherpa guide and Sherpa porter). My trekking partner would be “John from Ireland,” who had timed the trip so that he would wake up at EBC on the morning of his 50th Birthday. Pasang would be our guide and Kancer Rei our porter who we would meet in Lukla.
After flying to Lukla and meeting Kancer Rei, we were off to our first night in Monjo. For the most part the trail had no visible damage to it, with the exception of the west side of the Dhudh Kosi River, where one section of about 100 m was taken down with a landslide. That short section had been rebuilt, as well as a few others. Once again, the trial is the crux for goods up and down the valley, with the amazing Sherpa porters acting as their own engines, up and down the hills. A few of the buildings had earthquake damage visible, many not usable, and a few demolished. None of the buildings being used by any of the trekking companies were unstable. The biggest difference between the April trek and the October one was the lack of trekkers. This time around was incredibly unique – Autumn usually being the busy season- as many times we found ourselves walking long distances without seeing any other trekkers.
I can’t recall seeing any earthquake damage in Namche. We hiked to Khumjung on one of our acclimation days and I did see a few fallen rock walls and cracks in building walls. The trail to Tengbouche had very minimal damage in a couple spots, with crews actually working on repairs as we were there. From Tengbouche to Dingbouche, and all the way to Everest Base Camp, we had wonderful blue skies. Our acclimation day hike, high on the ridge above Dingbouche, was a full blue sky day. Then we reached Lobuche, where just a few months before the freak snowstorm had snuffed my first group’s EBC ambitions.
In the morning in Lobuche, I woke up about 6:00 am and looked out the frosted window to a full blue sky. The hike to Gorek Shep took about 3 hours, with little vertical hiking and a lot of loose rock as we were climbing along the lateral moraine of the Khumbu Glacer. At this elevation, regardless of exertion (or lack thereof), you’re pretty pooped. With it still being a blue sky upon arrival in Gorek Shep, we decided to tackle the climb up Kala Pathar that afternoon. Kala Pathar is really a lower ridge of Pumori. If you hike and reach the flags at the top, you’ll be at about 18500 ft, or, 5500 m – the highest point on the EBC Trek. The views across the Khumbu Glacier to Everest and Nuptse are spectacular. The last hundred or so metres are very rocky, with some climbing around boulders. The view from the top is certainly better than further down, but suburb views can still be had from about 2/3rds to the top.
On top of Kala Phattar
The trek from Gorek Shep to EBC is not long in distance or time. Essentially, you’re hiking along the terminal moraine of the  Khumbu Glacier. With this type of walk the terrain is naturally active, with the moraine having an ice core melting and the glacier itself a slow moving river of ice.  It’s an amazing achievement to reach Everest Base Camp and witness the stunningly rugged beauty surrounding you.
All of our tents and mattresses were set up for our night on the Glacier.  The temperature fell to about -10 C, but I was quite toasty in my sleeping bag, and, although fully clothed, I slept better than I thought I would. All night we could hear avalanches, ice snapping and cracking – it was just what I was hoping for!
Our three day trek back to Lukla for the flight back to Kathmandu was full of retrospect.  I think both John and I shed a few tears of accomplishment on the long hikes back.
Any of my concerns regarding the conditions post-earthquake of the trails, lodges and facilities were quickly alleviated.
Nepal and the Khumbu is open for business!  READ MORE…………………
The highest point on the planet

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